Here is how you can tell true First Amendment defenders from the charlatans: They stand up for the right to free expression even when they disagree with the speech in question.
The fakers? They stand up for the speech of their friends, and only their friends.
Two Missouri Republicans — U.S. Sen. Eric Schmitt and Attorney General Andrew Bailey — very much like to cast themselves as free speech warriors. Both men had a hand in Missouri’s ongoing lawsuit against the Biden administration for the pressure it put on social media companies to suppress COVID-19 disinformation during the darker days of the pandemic, and both men frequently mention it in their own online postings.
Schmitt, in fact, on Sunday posted the results of a recent poll from Real Clear Politics, a right-leaning outfit, that suggests Democratic voters are somewhat weaker on free speech protections than their Republican counterparts.
Just 53% of Democrats said speech should be legal under any circumstances according to the poll, while 74% of Republicans supported that statement. And only 31% of Democrats agreed that “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Fifty-one percent of Republican voters agreed with that idea.
“Tell me more about Threats To Democracy™️,” the senator sneered.
On Monday, meanwhile, Bailey went online to decry the Biden administration’s hiring of ex-intelligence officials who, he said, tried to “censor” information about Hunter Biden’s laptop on the eve of the 2020 presidential election.
“We’re not going to let Joe Biden destroy free speech in America,” Bailey wrote.
We don’t necessarily agree with Schmitt and Bailey on some of the particulars of the cases they mention. But in a general sense they’re right: The First Amendment, and the free speech rights it guarantees, is a critical foundation of our democracy.
Too bad Donald Trump — the ostensible leader of their party, a man to whom both Schmitt and Bailey have demonstrated unswerving loyalty — doesn’t agree.
Truth Social vow to investigate media for ‘treason’
On Sunday evening, the former president went on his Truth Social network and threatened — should he win the White House once again — to bring down the full force of government power on NBC News and its owner, Comcast, for the crime of publishing mean stories about him.
“They are almost all dishonest and corrupt, but Comcast, with its one-side and vicious coverage by NBC NEWS, and in particular MSNBC, often and correctly referred to as MSDNC (Democrat National Committee!), should be investigated for its ‘Country Threatening Treason,’” Trump wrote.
Under a second Trump presidency, he wrote, the “LameStream media” would be “thoroughly scrutinized” for their supposedly unfair reporting on him.
“Why should NBC, or any other of the corrupt & dishonest media companies, be entitled to use the very valuable Airwaves of the USA, FREE?,” Trump wrote. “They are a true threat to Democracy and are, in fact, THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE! The Fake News Media should pay a big price for what they have done to our once great Country!”
Trump’s statement was almost directly the opposite of “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” One could scarcely imagine a more direct threat on the news media’s First Amendment rights.
In such circumstances, you might expect true defenders of free speech to leap to NBC’s defense — to chastise the former president gently, perhaps, and urge him to find a more Constitution-friendly way to work out his anger toward his interlocutors.
Instead, Schmitt and Bailey remained publicly silent. No social media posts, no cable news appearances, no press releases.
That’s not a surprise. Schmitt (eventually) received Trump’s endorsement during his Senate run last year. Bailey has already endorsed Trump’s latest run for the White House. Both men have supported Trump and taken his support knowing full well the former president’s contempt for constitutional niceties and civil liberties. We’ve asked their offices for comment, but had received no reply as of press time.
Missouri’s leading Republicans have every right not to speak out on matters of public importance, of course. That’s covered by the First Amendment too. The rest of us are free to judge their silence — and what it says about the consistency of their free speech commitments.